Does anyone really want a deal?

Washington watch: Russian FM got it partially right when said America’s Congress, not president, is blocking compromise on Iran.

Catherine Ashton, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)
Catherine Ashton, Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani)
The Russian foreign minister got it only partially right when he said America’s unbending opposition to compromise in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program is set by the Congress, not the president. What he left out is that the Congress is being driven by a muscular pro-Israel lobby with a strong assist from Tehran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed the standoff on Congress’s “excessive stance,” but he overlooked the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and his recalcitrant Iranian client.
This is no time to ease up on the sanctions imposed by the United States and its Western allies, but neither is it a time to tie the president’s hands. A tough sanctions regime has brought Iran to the table, and Tehran should not be rewarded just for showing up, as it demands; it still must prove that it did not come just to buy time to pursue its nuclear ambitions and stave off a possible Israeli or American military strike.
Limiting the president’s options and negotiating flexibility by restricting his ability to invoke national security waivers as he deems necessary, the Congress and AIPAC look like they’re pushing for war, notwithstanding their unconvincing denials.
President Obama has repeatedly said he opposes containment and keeps the military option on the table, but he feels there is still time for diplomacy.
One of the most militant voices, Rep. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, disdains diplomacy. Negotiations are “foolish,” she said, and “will only embolden the regime.”
One Capitol Hill source following the issue closely told me, “Many up here believe if we put on enough sanctions the Iranians will run up the white flag, but they’re not thinking through where this leads, they’re just checking off boxes on the way to a war we don’t want or need. It reminds me of just before we invaded Iraq.”
A pro-Israel activist said, “This is being driven by those who see no room for compromise, and it is largely from the Jewish community.”
AIPAC has been the dominant force on this issue for nearly two decades. Obsessed might be a more accurate description. It has had a lot of help from the Iranians, whose over-the-top rhetoric about destroying the Jewish state and threats to sink American aircraft carriers in the Gulf only fuel Congressional smackdowns.
AIPAC, the Jewish community and Israel got a bum rap from those who accused them of pushing the United States into war against Iraq, but when the talk turns to Iran, that’s a different story.
It began when Yitzhak Rabin, who did not trust AIPAC and correctly felt its sympathies were with his Likud opponents, didn’t want it meddling in the peace process he was trying to launch with the Palestinians.
So he urged it to focus on what he called the “existential threat” posed by Iran. AIPAC took that ball and ran with it farther than anyone expected, driving successive Congresses and administrations to take increasingly hardline positions.
For years it has been issue number one on the AIPAC agenda and the focus of its annual Washington Policy Conference. Most other major Jewish organizations fell in line when they saw this was a popular cause they could use to raise their profile and contributions.
It has gotten to the point that Members of Congress refer to sanctions legislation as the AIPAC bills. The era of the organization’s below-the-radar approach to lobbying and its willingness to give credit to others is long gone.
AIPAC naturally insists it does not want war but its campaign to tie the president’s hands in any negotiations and lower the bar for military action sends a different message. This is especially clear in its latest move to redefine the red line for military action.
President Obama has repeatedly said the United States will not allow Iran to “acquire a nuclear weapon,” but AIPAC has adopted the Netanyahu position and pushed it through Congress lowering the bar to “acquiring nuclear capability.” That is a critical difference that could make war more likely.
The Iranians continue to be AIPAC’s and Netanyahu’s best ally. And they will be as long as they bar UN inspectors, ignore their commitments under the Non Proliferation Treaty, snub repeated UN resolutions, keep enriching uranium, demand sanctions be lifted as a reward just for showing up and announce plans to build more reactors.
Senate Democrats met last week with a group of Jewish leaders to say they are giving the president the tools to deal with Iran, but they didn’t mention he needs their permission for any deal short of unconditional Iranian surrender.
There is a lot more political maneuvering than global strategy at play here. In this highly charged political year with Republicans trying to paint the president and Democrats as weak and unreliable friends of Israel, both sides are trying to out-Israel the other. That’s one reason some Members of Congress are voting to increase military spending for Israel while cutting it for the Pentagon.
I see little or no possibility of any American flexibility in the talks, at least before November 6.
An important driving force in the current talks is the fear that if the diplomats can’t halt Iran’s nuclear drive the Israel Air Force will take its turn.
That won’t stop the program but might set it back by a couple of years or so – but at enormous cost to Israel and possibly this country.
If the Moscow talks prove to be just another Iranian delaying tactic, an Israeli strike becomes more likely. And so do a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences for a war-weary United States.